As a volunteer at the New York Botanical Garden, I have been spending three hours a week inputting label data from herbarium specimens that have already been imaged. I call up the record and image from a database, and then input the data into the relevant fields, including name of collector, date of collection, and location. This seems relatively straightforward, and often it is, especially now that I’ve been doing it for some time. This is definitely volunteer-level work; little expertise is required. If I get to a label where the handwriting is difficult to decipher or the geolocation data is given in an odd format, I can just turn to Mari Roberts, the data entry specialist I work with. The cursive of a hundred years ago is different from that of today. Mari is often able to decipher words I have trouble with because she has seen such curls and whirls many times before. However, there have been a few times when even Mari is stumped, and then I put the specimen in the “Pending Review” file and go on to the next label. Some guru deals with the problem later.
I have gotten to the point that I rarely need to ask for help, and can even do my hours at home because all this information is available on a server housed. What I am working on is part of a largee digitization project funded by the NSF to document natural history collections. I am inputting information for the Tri-Trophic Thematic Collection Network which focuses on the interactions among plants, specifically the Asteraceae or sunflower family of North America, the insects that feed on them, and the wasps that parasitize these insects, making for three-way ecological interactions. Having information about all three available online means that researchers will be able to draw on this data for any number of studies, including how the occurrence of a particular plant or insect species might change over time.
When I began working with Mari last April, she assigned me the genus Arnica, for which there were over 3000 unprocessed specimens. The first few times that I put in my paltry three hours, I was lucky if I completed 50 records in that time. I eventually got up to 75 or so, which Mari says is the standard that they all try to meet, about 25 per hour. This is definitely an average. Sometimes I hit labels that are tough, for example, having a great deal of data to input–several collectors, a long locality description, or complex georeferencing data. I guess I am getting the hang of it too because I ask for help less frequently. And then there is Greenland. Arnica grows in Greenland and I puzzled through a number of these labels, trying to identify place names using Google and various gazetteers. Then Greenland disappeared without my even realizing it, until sometime later Mari told me that she had gone in and taken those Arnica records out so I wouldn’t have to wrestle with them. That shows how thoughtful and helpful she is, but I was a little disappointed–this was my one opportunity to learn about Greenland geography.
As to Arnica itself, I can’t say I’ve learned a great deal about it, but here are some things I’ve discovered just from the sheets. It is a plant of high places, altitude measurements are often included, and 5,000-10,000 feet readings are the norm. It is also a plant of the Western United States and Canada: Nevada, Utah, California, Wyoming, Alberta, Saskatchuan, British Columbia, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon are the areas usually on the labels. However it also grows in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. There are hundreds of specimens for most of the species, a real treasure trove of information gathered over a period of at least 140 years. Some collectors’ names recur many times, and the system is designed to store these so they don’t have to retyped each time. There is a similar system for finding duplicates that have already been inputted, again saving time. When I come upon some duplicates my input rate can rise to 35 or more per hour. But then I get a real puzzler that reminds me why humans have to be involved in this process. I am happy to say that I’ve completed all 3280 Arnica labels and can’t wait to see what Mari has in store for me next.